Turkey wasn’t the most obvious choice for a family vacation. A month before I traveled there with my pregnant wife and our three-year-old son, a gunman killed 39 people at a nightclub in Istanbul. Still, my sister was living in Istanbul, and my wife had always wanted to visit. So we booked our tickets. And we followed the news.
Other tourists have been similarly wary. Visits to Turkey dropped 30 percent in 2016. Aside from recent attacks, the backlash from a failed coup last summer has made President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the most powerful Turkish leader since Ataturk and has imperiled Turkey’s democratic secularism.
But a country is always more than the sum of its headlines. In Istanbul, we watched women in headscarves walk past building-sized advertisements for Italian lingerie. We drank world-class cabernet sauvignon among giant phallic rock formations in Cappadocia. We feasted on exotic treats like sahlep—a warming, milky drink made with wild orchid powder—and şalgam, a fermented black carrot juice with pickled turnip and pulverized bulgur. I visited a hammam, where my stress and grime were scoured away by a stocky man with a bar of soap and an abrasive glove.
And everywhere we turned was another reminder that Turkey was, hands-down, the most kid-friendly country we had ever visited.
One thing every parent should know is that your kid may start to feel like a celebrity. People in Turkey love children. Minutes after we arrived, a baggage clerk had picked up our son, Theo, and was twirling him around the baggage carousel. For our entire stay, Theo was picked up, high-fived, and doted upon wherever we went, by rowdy college-age men and old women in hijab. (And not just because he was a foreigner—some people even thought we were Turkish.) Market vendors fed Theo strawberries, Turkish delight, and olives. In the famous Karaköy Güllüoğlu baklava shop, he pointed at some ice cream and the server bent down and handed him a big chocolate scoop. When we walked the streets, strangers would stop to pinch his cheek, rebutton his jacket, and say “mashallah,” God bless him. Theo was so saturated with attention that, on our trip home, he pointed sourly at a stranger in the Munich airport and demanded, “Mama, why isn’t that man saying hi to me?”
One can’t-miss activity is a full Turkish breakfast. The best one we enjoyed was at the Kale Cafe, near the Rumeli Hisari in Istanbul. Even if your kids are picky eaters, they’re bound to find something palatable in the tide of dishes that descends on the table. Some of our family’s favorites included tahin pekmez, a Nutella-like sesame seed paste sweetened with grape molasses; kaymak, a dollop of clotted cream swimming in honey; baked halloumi cheese; menemen scrambled eggs; and roasted red pepper and walnut paste. All of this comes with a basket of fresh simit—Turkish sesame seed bread—and endless hourglass cups of black tea, or apple tea for the kids.
The biggest surprise was the cats. If there’s one thing people in Istanbul love more than children, it’s cats. The city collectively cares for hundreds of thousands of stray felines, and not just by throwing them scraps of bread. They cook meals for them, put out little pet carriers to keep them dry, and take them to the vet. Cats are an Istanbul obsession. They’re also the subject of a charming new documentary called Kedi, which is well worth watching.
Don’t leave without visiting Cappadocia. The erosion of volcanic ash left an otherworldly landscape in Cappadocia, where the hillsides buckle and fold, and tall spires of rock called fairy chimneys (they look a lot like penises) rise from the ground. The soft rock here is littered with man-made caves, and when you visit Goreme, your kids will be thrilled to sleep in one. We stayed at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel, where Theo giddily played in a little cavern that was once used for making wine. The area still produces excellent wine—try the Kocabağ cabernet sauvignon. You can sample it at the rooftop restaurant, where you can also watch hot air balloons rise into the morning sunrise.
The most difficult part was, at times, a little too much affection for Theo. He didn’t always enjoy people pinching his cheeks, and sometimes my wife and I worried about his sugar intake. Theo would consider this a good problem, but after several sweet gifts at the Istanbul spice bazaar, a vendor asked Theo if he wanted chocolate. “No, thank you,” I answered for him, walking away. Theo was incredulous. “Papa, why did you say no?”